If you could do it all over again, where would you go wrong, Belgrade graffiti

„If you could do it all over again, where would you go wrong”, Belgrade graffiti

In the RTS show Upitnik, prime minister and wannabe-president Aleksandar Vucic said the following:

“I’m not campaigning. None of us is, we didn’t spend a single dinar, we didn’t hold a single rally. I didn’t go anywhere to campaign in any way. Is this true? It is. So, why are you talking about campaigning? Certain candidates from DOS are campaigning, they are campaigning, they’re doing it illegally, people don’t understand it, but those people aren’t allowed to spend all that money without anyone asking where they got it… Someone intentionally didn’t want to elect the president of the Anti-Corruption Agency, so that they could do this freely. Instead we got 4 votes instead of the required 5, so that no one would ask them where they got the money. Which foreign embassy gave you all that money? They didn’t give anything to me, but they did pay some of those DOS candidates.”

Who is (not) campaigning

At the beginning of his statement, Vucic says that „none of us” is campaigning. It’s true – if we’re talking about commercials and support rallies, there is no presidential campaign, which is not strange given the fact that Vucic had announced that he will be running for president only hours before this TV show. We could speak about his official function as a permanent campaign, but that’s not the subject of this article.

Then came the claim that „certain DOS candidates” are campaigning. Usage of the term DOS is strange in any reality apart from the „post-truth” one. Some of the candidates who announced their candidacies long time ago have nothing to do with DOS (Democratic Opposition of Serbia) from 2000 (like Seselj and Bosko Obradovic); candidates Jankovic and Jeremic weren’t even participating in political life when DOS was active, and now only some of the former DOS parties support them. On the other hand, more parties and individuals who were active in the former DOS (SDP, parts of DSS, DS, SD, PDS, DHSS, NS officials, etc.) now support Vucic. In fact, the only candidate we could rightfully call DOS is Aleksandar Popovic, who was an important official of a DOS party (DSS), but it’s perfectly clear that Vucic didn’t mean him when he said that.

Is it allowed to campaign before the campaign

The claim that the candidates „aren’t allowed to campaign” is important. It’s not true. Although it would be good for various reasons to limit the campaign to a certain period of time, there is no legal obstacle for the candidates to campaign before that period. There is only a prohibition for the „media service providers” to broadcast their commercials, which should be controlled by REM (Electronic media regulatory agency). It should be said that that prohibition from the Law on electronic media is very poorly formulated and that REM instructions on implementation of these rules are very deficient.

Financing a campaign before the announcement of elections

Apart from Vucic’s statement and the reasons for it, campaigning before the elections are announced is a serious problem. According to the Law on funding of political activities, „an election campaign includes the activities of a political subject from the day of announcement of elections to the day of the final election result” (article 2, indent 5). Numerous other rules (articles 20-26, 29-30 and others), on separate accounts, on funds that can be used for campaign, on submission, publishing, and control of reports on campaign funds, apply only to activities in the period from announcement to the day of the elections.

The candidates aren’t accountable for anything that happens before that day. What’s more, they aren’t allowed to include these expenses in campaign reports (for example, it’s against the rules to pay for expenses from before the election announcement with funds collected after the start of the campaign). In other words, if the money for promotion of a presidential candidate came not only „from ambassadors” (which, by the way, is not allowed in Serbia and the majority of other countries), but from the shadiest of funds, this would be allowed if these funds are spent before the announcement of elections.

Some limitations, though indirect, do exist. When the „campaign before the campaign” is run by political parties, they report these costs as their „regular” activities in their annual reports. On the other hand, if these activities are implemented by an individual (for example, the presidential candidate himself), by an informal group, an association, or a company supporting the candidate, the provisions of the Law on funding of political activities don’t apply.

Why campaign funding is so poorly regulated

This state of affairs reflects a lot of inconsistencies regarding the rules on campaign funding and the whole regulatory system on electoral advertising. Who could be responsible for such oversights? We don’t have to look far – the Law on funding of political activities should have been changed by the end of 2014 based on the initial Action plan for changes to the National anti-corruption strategy from 2013. Instead of comprehensive changes to that document, which the government, based on their own action plan, was supposed to submit two-and-a-half years ago, the changes adopted in 2014, based on SNS parliamentary group suggestions, didn’t solve existing problems, but created new ones. Among other things, these changes allow political parties which receive funds from the budget for funding their regular activities (apart from the elections) to use this money for both campaign funding and purchasing buildings!

This additionally deepened the huge gap regarding opportunities for promotion between the candidates of the biggest parliamentary parties (meaning only one in Serbia today) and others. For example, in the 2016 parliamentary elections, SNS coalition reported the spending of 351 million dinars of their „own funds” (in addition to the 262 million they got from the budget and 150 million credit). These funds are primarily budget money they got for other activities, i.e. to finance their regular activities as a parliamentary party. The extent of the gap caused by this change of the Law is evidenced by the fact that, according to submitted reports, all five opposition lists that crossed the census (including SRS) spent less than 400 million dinars between them.

Similar to this, the government is responsible for not changing the rules on political advertising during the last four-and-a-half years, although there were ample opportunities (e.g. when media laws, the Law on advertising, or election regulations were passed). This issue wasn’t even raised, probably because elections were held almost every year.

The lack of motivation to define the rules of the campaign is no accident. Any serious discussion about this would have to include the issue of equal opportunities for promotion of all candidates. This issue can’t be raised as long as the candidates in power have practically unlimited opportunities to invent „regular activities” for themselves, as well as a media ready to report on such „official campaigns” as normal activities.

Not electing the Agency director – „opposition conspiracy” or the last line of defense against totalitarian control

Vucic’s comment about failed election of the director of the Anti-corruption agency (to whom he wrongly refers to as „president”) deserves attention. As we saw, he said that the director wasn’t elected in order to prevent Agency control over the funding of „DOS” candidates. This would mean that the Agency is closed and that it can’t work without a director. However, the Agency has an acting director and employees working in the sector in charge of controlling campaign funding and conduct of public officials. All of them should be doing their jobs. And if they’re not, the absence of a director doesn’t resolve them of responsibility.

If there are any irregularities in the funding of presidential candidates, Aleksandar Vucic, as a damaged party, or simply as a person who has proof or knowledge of this, should report it to the Agency and demand an investigation. However, there is no such report. This country has a long history of use of accusations of illegal activities for political gain, without any consequent criminal or misdemeanor charges or information on whether the accusations were true. SNS has been exercising this very often lately. Particularly striking is a contrast between serious accusations against the former governments of Belgrade and Vojvodina and lack of any action to sanction those irregularities after the governments were changed.

In just a few seconds, presidential candidate Vucic practically accused two members of the Agency board, who didn’t vote for the candidate preferred by the remaining four members, of a crime. He doesn’t see it as a legitimate difference in opinions on the quality of candidates for the Agency director, but as part of a conspiracy to protect presidential candidates who are „violating the law“. He didn’t present any evidence to back these accusations up. On the contrary, if we know that some of the candidates for Agency director are several former high officials of the Ministry of Justice (from 2012 to 2016), this could prove the complete opposite of the prime minister’s insinuations.

In fact, maybe this failed election of the director has prevented, at least temporarily, establishment of complete control of politicians over this institution. We could easily assume that four members of the Agency board voted for one of the four candidates close to the political party which is home of all most powerful officials in the country, and that only two members stood up to that. Whatever the case, the answers to these questions are still speculations, given that the Agency board didn’t publish the name of the candidate they voted on, nor the reasons for individual votes.

By the way, just like with the lack of regulations for campaigning, the government, i.e. the parliamentary majority and Vucic’s party, is guilty for the difficulties in electing the Agency director. According to the law, the Agency board should have nine members, to ensure that the decisions are passed by majority of five, and instead, it has only six. The reason for this is the fact that, for years, the board hasn’t voted on a joint candidate for the Commissioner and Ombudsman (Vida Petrovic Skero) and the candidate of journalists’ associations (Zivojin Rakocevic). Besides this, the spot that should be filled based on a nomination by the president is also vacant as of recently.

Instead of a conclusion

I hope that this article, inspired by only 30 seconds of an interview with the most powerful man in the country, shows how fragile Serbian anti-corruption rules and institutions are, and how little was done to strengthen them, even in the last couple of years when the fight against corruption was a declared priority of the government and a subject of special importance for EU integration. The point of this article is not to promote „defeatism“ in the face of the hard work ahead, but to raise awareness of the fact that there will be no meaningful progress until we establish a society where readers, viewers, and listeners prefer facts over anyone’s statements and opinions.

Author is program director of Transparency Serbia.

Translated by Marijana Simic

Peščanik.net, 23.02.2017.